SPRINGFIELD — St. Alice Parish is using simultaneous translation technology as a next step in bridging the gap between Spanish-speaking and English-speaking worshippers.
The parish is in a working-class town of 60,000 that is still feeling the effects of the timber industry’s demise. For decades, it’s been trying to resolve cultural discord, one of the signature challenges in western Oregon Catholic life.
“There was a lot of tension between the Hispanic community and the English community,” says Milly Pungercar, a longtime parishioner. She started a group called Ladies of the Americas that prays the rosary, alternating decades in English and Spanish. The women eat potluck meals and sit side-by-side, stringing rosaries for parish children.
“We have to get to know one another and build relationships and then we can maybe try to understand one another,” Pungercar says.
“It has been an amazing experience for me and we are inviting more people to come,” says Maria Vargas, who appreciates how hard Anglo women try to get their Spanish prayers right. Vargas translates in the women’s group, but is a fan of the new smart-phone based translation system being used for all-parish Masses and adult education sessions.
Father Mark Bentz, administrator of St. Alice, says it’s unacceptable to have groups in the same parish divided by language. At the same time, he admits that no one really likes bilingual Masses and events. That’s why he suggested the simultaneous translation app, which the parish pays for and downloads onto members’ phones. Parishioners turn on the app, called Interactio, put in headphones and then hear a human translator on site interpret what is being said.
“That’s using technology to bring about a Pentecost,” Father Bentz concludes.
At a June Mass celebrating the patron saint, Father Bentz said he is “grateful for the gift of being able to celebrate the Eucharist as one community.” Everyone nodded, with only a slight delay from those wearing headphones.
“Our faith in the Eucharist unites us all as members of the same body, sharers in the one Spirit whether or not our language and our culture are the same,” the priest said, just moments before people of all language groups processed through the neighborhood, following the Eucharist.
While Spanish speakers have been using the app for Father Bentz’ homilies and other parts of the Mass, English speakers will use it in December for the Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration.
The need for unity strategies will continue for the foreseeable future: more than half of St. Alice worshippers are Spanish speakers, as are 95 percent of religious education students.
Longtime parishioner Epitacio Ruiz Jr. says Catholics should realize that most immigrants work hard to learn English, but that it will take time. Ruiz likes simultaneous translation for now.
Along with the smart phone translation, parishioners have been building concord by working together on projects. A multicultural crew of Anglos, Latinos and Filipinos and others convenes regularly to clean the church. Such teaming up has left past friction “hugely improved,” says organizer Brian Gesik. “It has been a goal for a long time to have one community, not two,” says Norma Ouellette, a parishioner since 1983. She is the parish’s Hispanic ministry coordinator and director of religious education. Ouellette predicts the new translation technology will convene the two language groups more often, with good results.
“It’s like a big salad,” Blanca Berguin says of her longtime parish. A native Spanish speaker, she has been married for 27 years to Jimmie Berguin, who is African American. They and their three children were welcomed warmly.
“I am talking about blacks, Hispanics, Anglos — all of them come and say hello to me,” Jimmie says.
“The thing we have appreciated about St Alice is the broad range it covers,” says Kay Whitney, who has been a member of the parish since she was baptized six decades ago.
Young people are noticing the St. Alice way. Jacob Flug, 21, has returned to the parish where his family worshipped, in part because of its welcoming culture. Carlee Fambrini, 19, was nervous to come to a Catholic church at first, but found St. Alice welcoming. “This is my home now,” she says.
Angela Stout, a 34-year-old mother of two, hopes to start a bilingual school at the parish. Her 31-year-old husband, Alan, a cantor who is bilingual, says knowing another language opens up spiritual insights.
“For example, when someone explains their devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe in their own language, on their own terms, it makes a much deeper impact,” Alan says.
In the 1990s, Father Pat Walsh assented to Latino families who wanted a Spanish Mass. Jesuit Father Roy Antunez and Father David Jaspers, both Spanish speakers, followed and worked on unity. Under Father Jaspers, the parish council decided that unity among cultures was the parish priority. It was atop the agenda of every council meeting.
“We started doubling down,” says Mike Whitney, a retired police officer and longtime lay leader at the parish. There were more bilingual Masses. The parish offered instruction for those who want to learn English or Spanish. The bilingual women’s group formed.
“It’s not an afterthought to blend our community together. It’s really the first step for us in considering all we do,” says Christine Beldner, the parish business manager.
Danielle Plantz, pastoral associate, says that the parish has been incorporating more Latin into liturgy, since that’s a language shared by all Catholics. Plantz recognizes that working on language is important, but hopes parishioners also will unify by focusing on faith as a shared treasure.